Disney vs. Ghibli, A Cartoon Studio Comparison

By Donald Ash | Hmm...

Disney vs Ghibli

Way back in 1928, audiences were enthralled as the black-and-white, animated short, Steamboat Willie, made its theatrical debut. The rest as they say is Disney history. Perhaps you may know of the main character in that first film. He goes by the name “Mickey Mouse.” Of course you know him! Mickey is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters on the planet, I might go as far as to say he is THE MOST recognizable. Walt, Roy, and the Disney staff went on to create a cast of characters who were so special, so beloved that continue to bring smiles to children of all ages, even some 50 years after Walt’s passing: Donald Duck (my favorite of course), Goofy, Pluto, Minnie, Daisy, Pete, Chip, Dale, and so many more.

In August of 1986, Ghibli studios released their very first feature film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky* and captured the imagination of a nation. Ghibli Studios has gone on to make a host of wonderful, animated features: My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Grave of the Fireflies, among others. Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli studio is one of the most well-known Japanese anime studios in existence today.
*Nausica was released in 1984 before the actual studio was founded.

Earlier this year I had a chance to return the Ghibli Museum for the second time, and I think my second walk-through was even more memorable than the very first time. While I was strolling around, browsing through Miyazaki’s sketches and watching that animated, 3D Totoro diarama, it struck me just how different the Ghibli atmosphere is from the Disney one. I have been to Disney Sea twice and to Disney Land twice and of course a museum and an amusement park are an apples to apricots comparison, but even the Disney Studios features and Ghibli works evoke a completely different set of emotions when you watch them, right?


Disney specializes in cartoons and films that have that Disney pixie dust sprinkle…the Disney magic. The movies take you out of the realm of what’s real, and for a brief moment, you have a chance to escape the stress and the trouble that exists in your world and join an animated, Disney protagonist on a wonderful adventure. Disney does a great stimulating the wonder muscles of your mind. For example, with the Peter Pan cartoon (a revival an existing story) Peter, Wendy and their companions could fly with a little magic powder and a lot of belief. Or there was one of my favorite magical moments in the film Sword in the Stone when Merlin and Madame Mim had a Wizard’s Duel…CLASSIC! Disney animation doesn’t always have to incorporate magic to inspire wonder, but it helps. Watching a Goofy “How to Cartoon” has the same kind of Disney magic for a whole different set of reasons, usually because the cartoon is so entertaining.

Oh. Let’s not forget the Disney music. If told you to sing “Under the Sea” right now, I know so many of you, even if you don’t want to sing it, are playing the song in your head right now. Whistle While You Work, of the Hi Ho (7 Dwarves) or Zippidy Doo Dah.

I was singing A Whole New World just a few short weeks ago at karaoke. The songs are so catchy that it makes me wonder if Disneyland has a secret cellar where they test the “catchiness” factor of their songs on theme park patrons. In my head I see an unusually muscular, costumed Mickey snatching up poor unassuming visitor and take them to the music cellar to see how the Disney music effects the human psyche. I wonder if there are songs, that never saw that light of day, ones that drive people to their wit’s end. Once the test subject starts smashing their face in to the nearest wall, I’m sure the scientists are all like “Nope, guess we can’t use that song in the movie.”

Anyway, when you couple unforgettable Disney animation with catchy music you get the formula for magical Disney feature films which are, by and large, feel-good films


How about Ghibli? Ghibli films are special for other reasons. Ghibli Films may have feel good moments, but I wouldn’t say they’re “feel good” features. I think all of the Ghibli films I’ve seen deal with some type of loss or potential loss. In the Totoro film the girls potentially could have lost their mother, or in Grave of the Fireflies (Dear God that movie was sad) it’s the death (loss) of an entire family, or in Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s the loss of youth. I wouldn’t call these the main themes of the Ghibli films but it’s such a strong underlying them that it affects the air of movie. As a result, Ghibli Films tend to have a more serious ambiance than their Disney counterpart. Slightly more serious animated features isn’t a bad thing, it kinda makes the Ghibli movies what they are.

Ghibli films can be quite magical in their own right. Castles in the Sky, Gods of Nature, Dragons, Talking Bouncing Heads, Wizards, and Magical Charms are all fair game in a Ghibli Film. The magic isn’t as “bippity boppety boo-ish” for lack of a better term, but it’s magical and memorable, nonetheless.

Ghibli Music. I think there are some really catchy Ghibli tunes that American audiences may not be aware of, but are wildly popular here in Japan, like Totoro’s theme the “Aruko” song. Ghibli Studio features, employ some of the best orchestral talent that Japan has to offer, which make the films all the more memorable. I wouldn’t say all of the Ghibli song lyrics are catchy, but some of melodies can be.

Disney has been around for quite some time, and from it’s humble beginnings in the mind of a Kansas City boy, the animation and the company have truly evolved into a global phenomenon. In the beginning, Disney was best known for the the animated representation of the classic fairy tale with a happy ending: Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The next evolution focused more on films that catered to Walt Disney’s specialty, animals personified: Lady and the Tramp, the Lion King, etc.. The latest evolution has been a CGI (computer graphic image) craze.

Ghibli Studios really reignited my Japanese animation spark when I saw Spirited Away. It was Chihiro’s journey that inspired me to watch more of the company’s feature films. For the most part, I’ve like every film I’ve watched. Ghibli, however, lacks the diversity that Disney has. Disney has made so many different teams and so many different films that you can end up with a film that is markedly different from any Disney film you’ve ever seen. The Ghibli films are limited in the subjects they can cover, whereas Disney can literally draw from just about any story, or any genre in the world. Snow White and Kung Fu Panda are very different films. Nausica and Princess Mononoke, though different, have a LOT of similarities.

Will the Ghibli films ever be as popular as the Disney ones? I highly doubt it. Disney is an animation juggernaut with staff and resources that Ghibli would have a hard time even thinking about matching.

However, you don’t have to be a juggernaut to make great animation. Film after film, Ghibli continues to prove that. No disrespect to Disney, because I love Disney films, but lately it seems like they’ve lost their way with the film market. There are so many films that employ the use of computer technology that they seem to be getting further and further away from the magic of hand-drawn animation…the very thing that put them on the map. I LOVED the Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc. But I can’t remember the last time I saw an amazing, drawn Disney Cartoon.

Quiz time: 1. What is the best Disney animation of all time? 2. What is the best Ghibli Animation of all time?

Donald Ash


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Matthew Wallace says:

    Best Disney animation would probably be 101 Dalmations, for being as close to a “pure” heartwarming animation with a unique storyline. A genuine “Walt” Disney animation!

    As for the Ghibli, Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) was by far the most epic and vast.

    Ponyo and Totoro both have excellent soundtracks, but as you said the lyrics are harder to have get stuck in your head. (however Tonari no Totoro is stuck in my head right now)

  • Nanami says:

    Gah that’s a hard one.. I have really loved Disney films all my life.. Heck my ballet troupe did the little mermaid when I was a kid. So it’s a fair favorite.. But I can’t really pick just one.

    When it comes to Studio Ghibli.. while i wouldn’t say it’s the *best* of their movies.. there was something about Howl that struck a chord. I really love that movie. I have the original book as well. I love Ponyo too (Mermaids!)

  • Petaris says:

    I have never thought about the Ghibli films being about losing someone, but now that you mention it it seems very evident. To me they always seem to be about learning a life lesson of some sort and nearly always have some message about environmentalism. Its really not a surprise about the environmentalism as Miazaki-san is known to be very environmentally conscious.

    Best Animated Disney film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (but a close tie with Beauty and the Beast)

    Best Disney Live Action & Animated film: Marry Poppins – hands down! 🙂

    Best Ghibli film: Castle in the Sky I guess, but its soooo hard to choose. Kiki’s Delivery service and Totoro are right up their with it and the rest really aren’t far behind.

    • Petaris says:

      By the way, a lot of the instrumental music from the Ghibli films was done by Joe Hisaishi. He certainly is a great composer! One of my favorite pieces is the theme song of きくじろのなつ (kikujiro no natsu, or Summer of Kikujiro). The piece is titled “Summer” and you can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/8ADcQmtrkl0

      The movie was pretty good too, though it had some sad moments in it.

  • Regina says:

    Wow that’s a question.

    For me, I would have to go with the films that have embedded themselves into me. So for Disney I would say “The Little Mermaid”. Amazing artwork and songs that I can still sing word for word even today. For Ghibli I will always be loyal to “Spirited Away”. That film moved me in ways that I never thought possible and made me the otaku/Japanophile I am today. That film, literally, shaped my personality.

    Both studios have awesome work but those are the ones that stand out in my mind.

  • My all time Disney would be Sleeping Beauty. Scared the shit outta me back in the day.

    Studio Ghibli was Howl’s Moving Castle, or Spirited Away.
    Pretty much any of Disney or Ghibli really, thinking about it now, I can’t settle definitely on one.

    But compared to Disney now, I love Studio Ghibli more, but if Disney was the way it was to me when I was younger, now, then they’d be on the same level. Can’t surpass each other in my eyes.

    Going to watch films now. Hahaha

  • Bryson Bennett says:

    Disney – My favorite is Aladdin but the best is Beauty and the Best
    Ghibli – Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し)easily

  • Icarus says:

    Disney: Lion King. Well because I can’t forget the songs used in that film. Plus, Scar was scary and cool.
    Ghibli: Spirited Away. I could watch it over and over again. The backgrounds were so beautiful and the animation was just perfect.

    It’s such a shame that Disney doesn’t produce handdrawn animated films anymore. It’s all 3D. I thought their new film Paperman was traditionally made but turns out to be computer generated but with a 2D look. Disney always have happy endings but Ghibli films are bold enough to make me cry and curse Miyazaki. Grave of the fireflies was beautiful but tragic that I couldn’t watch it for the second time because the ending was so painful…gah. Ghibli films’ endings are unpredictable. Sure, I can guess if it’s a happy or sad ending but the incidents leading to it are not the way I expect it to be.

    • Donald Ash says:

      Hey Icarus.

      I have to second you on that Grave of the Fireflies, thing. It was one of the highest quality animations I have seen, but I’ve only been able to bring myself to watch it once.
      You’re right. Ghibli endings truly can go either way.

      Thanks for posting.


    • The Heroes of Hope says:

      I agree with you I like the Lion King and Spirited Away.

  • Berny says:

    For me the best Ghibli film is Spirited Away, everything in that movie is alright the plot the characters and the well used music, and the best Disney movie is The Little Mermaid, simply the most beautiful movie i’ve ever seen and the one that started the Disney Renaissance.

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  • Melanie says:

    Personally, I like to Studio Ghibli much more than Disney. That is because, I prefer to have bittersweet endings. After all, I’m quite pessimistic. Also, I love the fact that in some Studio Ghibli movies, like, Howl’s Moving Castle, they don’t tell you everything, and allow you to make your own theories. For example, I believe that Sophie is actually a witch in Howl’s Moving Castle.
    My favorite Studio Ghibli movie is either Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. After that comes Howl’s Moving Castle and then Castle in The Sky (even though I absolutely hate Pazu’s voice, at least English dubbed).

    • thejapanguy says:

      I really liked Howl’s Moving Castle. Some people don’t agree with me, but it’s right near the top of my list!

      I TOTALLY agree with you on the voice acting though, Melanie. They used Christian Bale for the voice acting. Although he’s an amazing actor, he didn’t quite fit for Howl’s character.

      • Stephanie Bishop says:

        He’s a good match for Howl…..by the way the movie is based off of the book Howl’s moving Castle in the book Howl is more a womanizer who is pretty snarky towards Sophie. Diana Wynne Jones wrote Howl’s moving castle and it’s other sequels and crossovers. My favorite will always be Castle in the sky.

    • Nakasuki says:

      I agree i’ve had enough with Disney princess’ they usually end the same romeo meets Juliet then happy ending..I do have to say zootopia was a great movie it was actually very different from the past movies..and I guess frozen was different too but Im not really into the new singing stuff they come up with. I loved the movies with the foreign singing like under the Sea and the lion king movie. Now those were powerful music. Ghibil studios wins my favor I watch spirited away and howls moving castle and the feels are great >.< idk why but I love when miyazaki creates those feast scenes I love seeing the characters eating xD. of course the story is touching too you get comedy and sad parts which really engages you into the movies. I absolutely love the sound tract in spirited away..

  • Anime_lover says:

    I quite disagree with you that Disney cartoons are more diversitive in theme than Ghibli anime. To me, Kungfu Panda or Snow White or Peter Pan etc, they are all about a main character fighting against monster/witch… . Most of the cartoons made by Disney, Pixar… nowadays can be classified into either fairy tales for children or adventures, mostly of an animal. Moreover, the characters in these cartoons do not look “real” to me.
    I opposite, every Ghibli anime has its own theme. Spirited Away: a young girl travels to the world of spirits and tries to save her parents; My neighbor the Yamadas, Yesterday, Totoro: slice of life, no fighting, no hero, no monster as can be seen in most of US cartoons, but I can feel how the characters in those animes feel, and they look really “real” to me. Princess Mononoke: against the violation of the nature.
    Moreover, what I love most in Glibli animes is that, there is mostly no clearly-defined “good” and “bad” characters such as Snow White vs witch as in Disney cartoon, which is more real to me, as no one in the world can be totally innocent and always “good” like Snow White and there is no other extreme case, totally bad and cruel like the witch.

  • Buck Wade says:

    I’ve watched spirited away, arrietty, ponyo, howl’s moving castle, castle in the sky, and they kinda bored me. Disney movies always start off happy but have their dramatic and serious moments.

  • Buck Wade says:

    I find spirited away kinda overrated. It never explains where the main character is from, more importantly where she moves, nor does it ever explain how and why the spirit world came to be. Arrietty was mostly boring for me. I found Howl’s moving castle kinda wierd. I don’t really find castle in the sky that memorable, ponyo was a bit too happy.

    • Anon says:

      Regarding Spirited Away, knowing where Chihiro’s from, where she moves, or how and why the spirit world came to be are unnecessary details. I understood the movie perfectly fine the first time I watched it through and I was only five years old.

      • The Heroes of Hope says:

        I’m with you but I agree that the spirit world could have used some expansion but then the message of the film and everything else might get lost.

    • Yang says:

      well, ghibli films are for people who can understand it and really good at looking things at a perspective.
      Its like if you don’t know what you’re teacher teaching you, then you wouldn’t understand a goddamn thing.
      therefore you should pay more attention.

    • Ikajo says:

      I realize this is pretty old but I just had to. There are two things that I want to address. The first is about Chihiro and the fact that her circumstances isn’t well explained. This is not uncommon in Japanese media and storytelling. They are not as concerned with these things as western storytellers are. If you watch some anime, you will notice the same kind of thing.
      The second thing is about the spirit world. You have to remember Spirited Away was created for a Japanese audience. It builds upon Shinto and folklore. Therefore, to the Japanese audience it feels natural. In Japanese folklore spirits, gods and “ghosts” is part of everyday life. Everything has a “spirit”. The spirit world didn’t come to be, it always existed. In the very beginning of the movie they drives by a small shrine. They pass a body of water, in Japanese folklore rivers represent boundaries between the spirit world and our world. In other anime and manga you can find examples of humans who have wandered into the spirit world.
      I think that many western viewers are unaware of this, just like you. There is a lot more going on than I mentioned, which to the intended audience is already known facts.

  • tt says:

    you…………………..DO SOME RESEARCH!!!!!

  • Kat says:

    I agree with Anime-lover. Ghibli films are not clearly black or white, you have to search for the underlying meaning. It shows some of the problems of real life, even with the fantasy element to make it more entertaining. Most of the Ghibli music is instrumental, but it can still leave you humming it for the rest of the day. Also, the movies aren’t alway happy. They have their happy moments, but woven in with that is seriousness. They are memorable, and the best movies ever. Even if there is a bad character, they are never totally evil, they have reasons. They are not just pure crazy evilness, they want something, but they lost themselves getting there, or they are trying to protect someone/something. The faces and expressions and emotions are so real, even though they are animated. With Ghibli, I feel what the characters are feeling, but with Disney, i’m just like, “ok, so that characters sad and that one is happy. now what?”. I understand the emotions in Ghibli movies. I love the bittersweet endings, not the happily ever afters. Bittersweet endings are realistic, because no one actually has a perfect ending in real life. The visuals are stunning, all hand painted and beautiful. Disney is using more and more computer graphics every day.

  • manchir says:

    For me choosing the best disney cartoon is just so hard. As you said disney has so many diverse cartoons. But i would choose The lion king, Lilo and stitch, Th mickey mouse, Winnie the pooh, frozen, brave, 101 Dalmatian, oliver and hundreds of more(i cant even write down all if them). About always having happy ending, it is actually one of the most important reasons of mine to watch cartoons. Our life is full if stress, sadness and suffering. I want to have that magical and memorable time in my life even though that doesnt exist. During disney cartoons each character have their down side and happy ending time of their life. I feel like they are trying to teach us to go farther and farther untill we find out happy ending just like main characters do with their fruends. I will define most of them us optimistic cartoons. I love them soo much. Of course their amazayn sountracks. I also love pixar studio’s fantastic cartoons too.

      • manchir says:

        About new generation of disneys cgi characters, i dont think thats not that bad. They are changing. And moving on. We had enough memorable 2d animations so it is refreshing to meet with slightly different looks of new characters. But making old disney fashioned animation in a while will be awesome too.

  • Michael AliensBiehn says:

    I don’t like Disney I love Studio Ghibli!

  • EloquentPeasant says:

    I don’t have anything against Disney per se, but Studio Ghibli is leagues better. Disney has often offensive stereotypes of a falsely romanticized history (Aladdin, Mulan, Pocahantas) and are fairly unoriginal and don’t really have complex characters. Studio Ghibli has very round characters that you could just step right into the shoes of. I also find Western animation to be a bit too simple and not as pleasing aesthetically as Japanese animation.

  • barney_el_mas_bonito says:

    ghibli gives me a magic feeling, meanwhile disney just a cliche feeling.

  • iamstupid says:

    Kung fu Panda is my favorite Disney film

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